Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Ripton wants a stronger voice

As a member of Ripton’s uniquely school-less school board, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t try to summarize our strange situation to an acquaintance. As we approach an important meeting of the ACSD Board on Monday, Dec. 13, I’d like to share my personal perspective with the broader Addison County community.

Ripton joined the ACSD through an accelerated merger process that promised merging would not result in school closure; it was sold as a protection against it. When the facilities master plan and the ACSD board’s guiding principles revealed the vulnerability of our school’s existence, our community engaged in a long and dynamic effort to affect more democratic control on the process. Anyone reading this paper has been privy to both the diversity of efforts and the sweep of time this journey has already occupied. In some ways we have traveled a million miles, and in other ways it feels like we are right back where we started. However, in all ways, we are still here in Ripton, and we believe that keeping a thriving and successful school open in our town is important for both our young children and our community.

After Ripton failed to gain traction affecting change within the ACSD, we voted to leave. Some of you said, “congrats and best of luck,” others said, “good riddance,” but all of you assumed our path was diverging from the ACSD. Your towns’ support and understanding was vital. It was inspiring. It was a sense of community that had never been engendered by imposed academic borders because it allowed us to recognize and support cultural differences between communities and show mutual respect for the difference in those values.

What happened next was so disheartening to me. Contrary to all predictions and guidance (including legal), rather than assigning Ripton to an existing supervisory union for central office services, a power completely afforded to the State Board of Education, they have suggested we will have to become our own supervisory district. The reality of this decision is Ripton’s tiny district would need its own superintendent, director of special education services, business manager, HR director, curriculum coordinator, and the list could go on. In my opinion, the State Board of Education is not only punishing a town that merged early and is exercising its democratic right, but ironically, it is subverting the efficiencies and positive impact Act 46 seeks to attain.

The State Board has not imposed that decision, yet. Rather, they are waiting to see if Ripton and ACSD can come to an agreement. There is strong pressure, on both parties, to come back to the table and do a better job of working together to find a mutually beneficial solution. Here we are having traveled a million miles and none at all. But anyone who has traveled knows that the greatest gift gained is perspective.

My perspective is this: Our communities did the best we could with what we were handed at the time Act 46 was rolled out. We designed articles of agreement that we thought were appropriate and elected board members who we thought represented our values. Things change and the most successful systems accommodate those changes. As Act 46 forged forward, we have seen more and more unified districts in Vermont adopting Articles that give towns much more power than the articles drafted for the ACSD. They also offer clearer metrics for school closure and for defining repurposing of schools.

Today, nearly nine out of ten consolidated districts’ articles include clauses that require a town vote to affirm the closure of a school. Some go on to clearly define metrics by which a school’s closure should be determined. Ripton does not want to keep open a failing school. It doesn’t want to keep open a hopelessly dwindling school. But there’s nothing dwindling about our little town right now.

In my opinion, if Act 46 is to achieve its goals, then it must become more flexible to recognize and accommodate the unique and individual qualities in a state with such community diversity. Adding more clarity and fairness to ACSD’s articles of agreement will only help preserve the spirit and intention I see in Act 46. Such clarity empowers all member towns of the ACSD. Clarity and empowerment will help dictate decisions that leverage individual towns’ interests and values so they contribute to the whole.

Does this fix everything? Absolutely not. The funding systems are complicated, changing and choking sometimes. But if we are willing to invest so much for the IB program whose number one stated mission is to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through education that builds intercultural understanding and respect,” then we have to put structures within the governance of the ACSD that empower the cultural identity of its individual towns.

I encourage all members of our district community who are invested in evolving models of governance to attend the next ACSD Board meeting on Monday, Dec. 13, at 6:30 p.m. in person at 208 Charles Ave. or remotely via links found on their website. A mentor of mine always reminded me to “talk with my feet” and by attending this meeting you will be helping to envision the next roadmap for our region’s educational and cultural path.

Molly Witters

Ripton

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